Have you ever found yourself unable to sleep and standing in front of the refrigerator at 2 am?
Science can now tell us why.
Several recent studies show the clear relationship between sleep, food consumption, weight-regulation and metabolism. This relationship is a major part of the reason that obesity and type II diabetes is on the rise. As it turns out, when you are chronically sleep deprived, the systems and hormones in your body are all impacted. Signals that tell your body when to eat or not eat, wake or sleep, when to process leptin and glucose or repair itself are all altered. Given that 30% of Americans between the ages of 30-64 sleep less than 6 hours per night, this decline in health is seemingly inevitable.
What is driving this epidemic of sleeplessness?
There are many factors that work together to alter the body’s homeostatic process (your natural drive to sleep) and your circadian rhythm (the cycle of wake and sleep in your body affected by light, stress, and/or social environment). These include (but are not limited to):
- Lifestyle– Many of us skimp on sleep when we are pressed for time. Work, family and social obligations all compete for time in our day. We give up our exercise time, make poor on-the-go food choices and sleep less. When self-care takes a back seat, our bodies pay the price.
- Disease or medical conditions– Many diseases and conditions make it difficult to sleep, either because you cannot get comfortable and relax or because they literally wake you, as in the case of sleep apnea. Often these diseases are caused, in part, by sleep deprivation. Diseases such as coronary disease are actually worsened by sleep deprivation, creating an unhealthy cycle.
- Medication– Check the labels on any medications or supplements you take. Many of them list agitation or sleeplessness as a side effect.
- Melatonin imbalance – Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland and can be found in small amounts in many foods. It is a powerful antioxidant that regulates the circadian rhythm of several biological functions. Disruptions in these levels may cause sleep deprivation and/or disrupted sleep patterns.
- Cortisol imbalance– Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal gland in response to stress or low blood glucose. Your levels of cortisol should peak around 8 am and be lowest between midnight and 4 am. If these levels are altered, it can interrupt your sleep. If you wake between 1 and 3 am, it may be because of low adrenal function and cortisol or inadequate glycogen reserves in the liver.
Chronic sleep deprivation directly and indirectly impacts your quality of life.
We all experience the occasional night of sleep deprivation. Often it is a brief bout of insomnia, we stay out too late at a party, or spend the night awake with a sick child. Research shows that after one night of sleep deprivation, your body can recover if a normal sleep pattern resumes. After recurrent nights of sleep deprivation, you do not rebound and your body starts to break down, resulting in decreased energy, mood, health, work performance, and quality of life.
When you are sleep deprived:
- Your body cannot repair itself– As you sleep, growth hormone is released. In children, this stimulates growth. In adults, it repairs bones, tissues and organs.
- Glucose and insulin regulation is disrupted. Research shows that sleep loss can lead to impairments in glucose metabolism and an increase in insulin levels. This may increase the risk of developing obesity and diabetes since the body must produce more insulin to combat the rise in glucose. Studies tell us that high levels of nighttime cortisol may result in reduced insulin sensitivity the following morning.
- We make bad food choices when sleep deprived. Separate studies at University of California, Berkley and Columbia University both used MRI scans to study the effect of sleep deprivation on brain function as it relates to food choices. In both studies, the reward center of the brain in sleep deprived participants showed drives to unhealthy foods high in fats and carbohydrates, and they were less able to control food choice impulses. This may be because partial sleep deprivation is also associated with changes in the appetite regulating hormones, leptin and ghrelin.
- We become forgetful. Sleep deprivation lessens your ability to create new memories. There are 3 phases of memory: acquisition (taking in new info), consolidation (organization of info in the brain), and recall (memory retrieval). Acquisition and recall happen while you are awake and are most efficient when your brain is rested. Consolidation happens only while we are asleep. In this phase, the brain “files” our memories and makes room for more memory storage the next day. Since different types of memories are stored during different phases of sleep, disruptions in sleep patterns impair memory.
We should strive to sleep 6-8 hours per night. 6 hours of sleep seems to be the minimum amount of sleep the average person needs per night to function and be healthy. More than 8.5-9 hours can also create metabolic issues. For many of us, this can be a challenge. We would love to sleep 6-8 hours, but our bodies or our lives won’t allow us to do it.
How can we avoid sleep deprivation?
- Eat the right foods. Choose foods that promote sleep (potassium-rich fruit, dark leafy greens, turkey, whole grains) and avoid sleep interfering foods (anything high in fat or sugar-even natural sugars like berries).
- Support your adrenal glands. While cortisol helps your body to adjust to perceived emergencies, chronic stress can lead to adrenal fatigue, a cortisol imbalance, and sleeplessness. Consider supporting your adrenals with a high dose of rhodiola, licorice root (helps cortisol circulate longer), ashwaghanda, and maca root. PCOS Diva DeStress is specially designed to support adrenal health. Also, take steps to manage your stress during the day. Experiment with relaxation techniques, yoga and exercise. For more on adrenal health and PCOS, read my post, “Stress and Adrenal Health in PCOS.”
- Try magnesium. – Most Americans are deficient in magnesium, and women with PCOS are 19 times more likely to be deficient than the average! Magnesium has long been recognized as the “relaxation mineral.” Adequate magnesium doesn’t guarantee a good night’s sleep, but lack of magnesium will literally keep you up at night. Consider taking a daily magnesium supplement. Chelated versions (like PCOS Diva Super Magnesium) are best since they reduce possible side effects such as loose stools.
- Boost your melatonin. Melatonin must have darkness to trigger (even if it is supplemented). Turn off lights and pull light blocking shades. Since melatonin is not a drug, it falls into the supplement category, and you can buy them over the counter. Buyers beware: supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so not every supplement contains the ingredients or dosage indicated on the label. For more about this, read my article, “Not All Supplements Are Created Equal.” If you choose to take a melatonin supplement, choose one that has been inspected by a third party. While there have been no reported cases of toxicity or overdose, take these supplements with caution. Talk to your health care provider if you are concerned about the proper dosage for you.
- Practice sleep rituals. This is a crucial element for ensuring a good night’s sleep. Relaxing your body and mind for 30-60 minutes before bedtime signals to your body that it is time to sleep. It gives your mind time to settle so it isn’t racing and making “to-do lists” and helps your muscles to let go of the stress of the day. For more information about sleep rituals that really work, read my article, “A Dozen Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep.”
- Make some lifestyle changes: Little changes in your day can make big changes in your sleep. First, be sure to exercise regularly. Avoid caffeine and stimulants, and set a regular sleep schedule. Finally, seek treatment if you have an underlying medical condition such as sleep apnea, depression or anxiety.
- As a last resort, consider pharmaceuticals. Sleep deprivation has become such an epidemic that pharmaceutical companies have taken notice. Countless drugs promise to get you to sleep. As always, I urge you to seek these out only after you have tried everything else possible. All of these drugs have side effects that you do not want and typically do not solve the underlying problem. Popular drugs include: suvorexant (Belsorma), zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), diazapam (Valium), and zaleplon (Sonata).
There is no “one size fits all” answer to sleep deprivation because the causes and circumstances vary from person to person. If you are experiencing sleep deprivation, you will need to experiment with a combination of remedies to bring your body into balance.
For more information about the importance of sleep and some practical tips to help you get to sleep, check out, “The Step By Step Guide To Falling Asleep (That Actually Works).”
Knutson, Kristen L. “Impact of Sleep and Sleep Loss on Glucose Homeostasis and Appetite Regulation.” Sleep Medicine Clinics. U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2007. Web.
“Melatonin and Sleep.” National Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation, n.d. Web.
Olson, PhD, Kelly. Metabolic Consequences of Impaired Sleep: Therapeutic Options to Enhance Clinical Outcomes – See more at: http://www.designsforhealth.ca/EducationalWebinars/EducationalWebinars_August2015.html#sthash.9MRbxeiA.dpuf
“Sleep and Disease Risk.” Healthy Sleep. Harvard Medical School, 18 Dec. 2007. Web.
“Sleep Deprivation .” N2Sleep. IHealthSpot, 13 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.